Rebates That Don't Add Up

Renewable energy got its first real boost back in the late 70's when President Carter began federal rebate programs for systems installed in new or existing homes. These programs kick-started the industry and gave it enough momentum to survive the dismantling of the rebates by the Reagan administration.

The renewable energy industry has managed to plug along since then with steady, if not spectacular, growth. However, general public acceptance of the concept of renewable technology is still lacking.

Now it looks like the idea of rebates is slowly regaining favor as a way of increasing that level of acceptance. CoSEIA (The Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association) in conjunction with Public Service Company, the state, and the PUC, is administering a Solar Rebate Program. You can reach them at 1-800-633-9764. CoSEIA has $250,000 in funding for two kinds of renewable energy, grid-tied PV systems and solar water heating systems. The program covers systems installed between June 22, 1998 and June 15, 1999.

Of the two, the solar water system rebate will be the one most readily available on a statewide basis and with a properly designed and installed system, should be relatively easy to get. The amount of the rebate is based on the estimated annual energy production of the installed system.

The requirements for eligibility are somewhat strict and preclude owner designed home-built systems. Even so, if you are considering installing a solar water heater or a solar heated radiant floor system, you should look into this rebate program. A possible $1,000 rebate on a solar heating system is a pretty good incentive for having one installed, especially when they save you money in the long run.

The grid-tied photovoltaic system rebate is a different story. Though technically available to anyone in the state of Colorado it is designed in a way that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone outside of the Front Range metropolitan areas and suburbs to qualify for one.

What makes this particular program so limited is that it requires the participation of your local utility to make it work and most local utilities are not interested in making this process easy. Right now, only Public Service Company is doing anything at all to make it easy to grid tie and then only in a limited way.

Under ideal conditions a grid-tied system would allow you to simply hook your inverter to the utility meter and run the meter backwards and either pay, or get paid, whatever the meter reads each month. Unfortunately, unlike California, Colorado has no laws in place that require the utilities to pay you the same for your power as they charge you for theirs. For example, at present, IREA would charge you 7.68 cents per kWh and pay you 1.8 cents per kWh.

Additionally, such a system would require 2 meters (one for your power, one for theirs) with the cost of the extra meter paid by the homeowner, a guaranteed means of disconnecting your power production from their system should their system fail, and a $300,000 liability insurance policy (usually included in a standard homeowner's policy).

What really bothers me about this CoSEIA program is its incredibly narrow focus coupled with CoSEIA putting itself in the position of "representing" renewable energy in Colorado. Ninety percent of the PV systems installed in Colorado are installed in off-the-grid rural homes. These homeowners decided to install PV systems either because grid power was completely unavailable or the cost of running grid power to their homes was prohibitively expensive.

According to Karen Renshaw, Executive Director of CoSEIA, the program was designed to assist the 10% of the market that is grid-tied rather than to assist the 90% that is rural and off-grid. This is where I have the most trouble with the program as it has been designed and promoted by CoSEIA.

I think it is rather bizarre for an organization to ignore 90% of its market, especially when that organization represents an industry that is trying to create an identity for itself. Why are they trying to compete in the grid market against giant corporations when they can promote their own market niche and gain a stronger foothold?

Those of you who have read this column for any length of time know that I am no fan of grid-tied systems. While there is nothing inherently "wrong" with a grid-tied system in a functional sense, promoting them at the expense of rural power users causes, in my view, more harm than good.

One of the benefits of good renewable energy design is that it incorporates of necessity, very conservative energy usage patterns. A well-designed renewable energy home is extremely efficient in more than just its electrical usage. It also incorporates passive solar design for area heating and water heating, and uses natural lighting whenever possible.

By designing a rebate program for only those homes either planned for, or already using, a grid connection there is far less tendency to incorporate the high efficiency of an off-the-grid home. And that, I thought, is supposed to be the point of groups who claim to have as their main interest the promotion of renewable energy, conservation and energy independence.

Although CoSEIA claims to be "promoting" renewable energy in Colorado, they are really only acting in the rather narrow self-interest of some (but not all) of their member businesses. While that is certainly the function of a lobbying group, their desire to grab short term market share may wind up hurting the renewable energy market in Colorado in the long term.

All Contents © 1998
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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